Tuesday, November 10, 2015

A Fine Balance


The story is sad. So sad that I was depressed when I closed the book. Depressed not just because the story is sad but that the story ended and that it ended on a low point. It could have easily turned sunny way up but it didn't. It made me so unhappy I wondered what is the point of the story, except to leave your reader feeling helpless and insecure about the future and about humanity.
After you have absorbed the story and lamented over it, you start to look beyond the main story and to the backdrop. The descriptive nature of the book paints you a picture of India in the 1970s in front of your eyes. 

The prologues give you the history of each protagonist and with them of different cultures and social nitty-gritties. It unravels the Parsi families and their modern culture that is still constrained to their singular community. In Dina, you see the young spirited potential of modern middle class women that is shunned and choked by the patriarchal society.
The story of Ishvar and Om is by far the most inspiring. It talks in detail about untouchability and the lives of untouchables in small villages that amounts to nothing for anyone. And that hopelessness and desperation gives them the courage and strength to break the chains of social custom and rise above, to step up their economic and social standing by learning a new trade. It helps them to change their caste and embrace all religions. It is the story of the rise of the middle class.
Then comes the story of Maneck and how the beauty and tranquillity of the mountains is transformed into the chaos of tourism and marketing in the name of economic growth. How large companies upset the local ecosystems! And yet again another story of the middle class when the locals need to find other ways of livelihood through education.
That's the prologue.

The story itself is how these characters, who were reasonably successful in growing out of their chains, are hit in the head by the Emergency and how they fight it every single time successfully. The Emergency is an overarching theme in the story and Rohinton Mistry is clearly critical of Indira Gandhi though she is never mentioned by name and just referred to as the Prime Minister - a very apt description since it is just a position for the masses and not really thought of as a person.
Through out the story the Emergency is seen as giving the police and other local lords a sudden boost in power, destroying the protagonists life little by little. And our characters are playing the role of the Indian middle class that grows prosperous economically, not because of, but in spite of the government policies and struggling  relentlessly again them. They do find a fine balance for a brief period where they are prosperous and happy, in an ecosystem designed by them, having overcome the barriers of caste, class and loneliness.
But not for long...

The epilogue is where the author could have made it end better but I suppose he was keen to show the drastic long term effects of a brief period of tyranny that leaves many people helpless and lost, even after the death of the Prime Minister. So here are our characters, main and supporting, having lost the battle against the powerful government. The economic growth of the country is stalled and the spirit of the people broken. There is a small hope with the kindness Dina shows on Ishvar and Om, yet laced with the fear of being found out.

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